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Jugging at Way-Har Farms: Keeping a dairy tradition alive while adapting to today’s consumers

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 May 2017
Way-Har Farms

Milk may no longer be an item customers will go out of the way to purchase, even when it is being bottled right at the farm, as it is at Way-Har Farms in Bernville, Pennsylvania. The dairy, run today by William and Lolly Lesher, began bottling its own milk on-farm in the 1970s, utilizing 60 percent of their production.

Today, they milk 240 head, raise all of their own feed and replacement animals, and utilize a mere 10 percent of their milk in their own jugging operation.

“Milk was the key back in the ’70s,” and customers would regularly travel some distance to the farm just to purchase milk, Lolly Lesher, speaking at the Center for Dairy Excellence On-Farm Processing Forum, held recently in Harrisburg, said.

Way-Har Farm Market sign

Way-Har Farm Market is a separate entity from the farm and purchases milk from the dairy, pasteurizing and bottling it for on-farm retail sales, as well as wholesale distribution. In this manner, the farm market “gives some stability to the farm. What we do gives us cash flow. We have cash flow every day,” Lesher said. “The farm market shifts money to the farm on a regular basis,” making cash available for purchases. From January through May, when retail sales slow, the cash flow reverses.

“There’s not a whole lot of profit” in jugging milk, especially as expenses – including labeling regulations, water testing, utilities, licensing, wages and other associated costs – keep rising. In 2017, they’ve already had to absorb increased costs, in order to comply with new testing laws, Lesher said.

Every aspect of the highly regulated milk market requires licensing and fees, so processing, distributing and selling milk isn’t cheap. Other expenses and obstacles include equipment costs, zoning laws and even parking regulations, Lesher cautions those who may be interested in jugging themselves.

dairy cows

Got milk?

Customers today have many options for where they purchase their milk. That may have contributed to the decline in fluid milk sales seen at Way-Har Farms over the past decades.

Customers only “want to buy local if it’s local and it’s convenient,” Lesher said.

Chocolate milk is Way-Har’s big seller. They also offer skim, 1 percent and 2 percent milk, plus other milk flavors. Each product has to undergo testing to meet the parameters set up by the federal government. It costs $2.91 for each gallon of whole milk, once all fixed and variable costs of production are factored into the equation. They sell that gallon of milk for $3.46.

The small processing plant receives milk from the dairy farm. Milk is separated out for reduced-fat milks and for cream. It is pasteurized using high-temperature short-time (HTST) pasteurization and homogenized. The milk is sold at the farm store. They no longer have milk in grocery stores or other markets, primarily due to the price of purchasing shelf space.

dairy calves

In-state bulk sales to restaurants, nursing homes, campgrounds and universities now dominate Way-Har Farms’ fluid milk sales. They distribute the milk themselves, operating three trucks, four days per week to make deliveries.

“Sell in volume, and it’s easy,” Lesher said, referencing the 5-gallon bags of milk that make up their primary milk market. They also sell in pints, mostly to campgrounds, for additional bulk sales. Fresh cream, sold to restaurants, “is a big moneymaker.”

The farm previously sold milk to New York City venues “by the trailer load,” but the grade A license required to do so just became too expensive, and they were actually losing money on these out-of-state sales. The increase in cost is the primary reason the farm no longer sells its fluid milk out-of-state.

Farm market sales

The farm market, with 3,600 square feet of retail space, plus the processing plant, features a deli, a bakery, ice cream parlor and café seating. Because of its size, it can be hard to keep the shelves full of high-quality product. There are 35 market employees, including seasonal, full-time and part-time help.

jugging milk

The size is “way too much for a farm market,” Lesher said. She tries to attract customers via witty signs, which are changed twice per week. Employees compete to come up with clever sayings to post, hoping to draw in new customers and bring back repeat customers more frequently.

“Milk prices go up and down; ice cream sales peak in August. Ice cream brings people in ... except for December, January, February and March, when no one wants to eat ice cream,” she said. “Cheese curds, made from our own milk by a local processor,” have been the newest big seller. “The bakery is very consistent.”

Retail fluid milk sales through Way-Har Farm Market may have slowed – as has fluid milk consumption in the U.S. – but ice cream sales are hot. To keep ice cream customers happy and coming back for more, they make over 90 flavors, as well as custom flavor orders for events or groups. Not all flavors are always available, and seasonal flavors vary. Although the ice cream is not made with the herd’s own milk, the ice cream mix is purchased from a local dairy processing plant and processed on-site at Way-Har Farm Market’s processing plant.

ice cream trailer

The ice cream is in such demand that the farm has a mobile ice cream truck, which it rents out for events. But there is one rule: Only Way-Har Farms ice cream can be sold from the truck. Unbelievably, groups have asked to rent the truck in order to sell other brands of ice cream. To Lesher, this signifies a lack of understanding about the role the farm and the market have in producing the high-quality products – like the ice cream – sold at Way-Har Farm Market.

Perhaps the local food movement may bring greater awareness as people realize that each gallon of milk comes not from a single farm and a few hundred cows, as does the milk at Way-Har Farms or other farm jugging operations, but from milk comingled and sourced from hundreds of farms and thousands of cows.

But juggers would need to make a comeback too, if this were to occur.

“There’s not as many as there had been at one time,” Lesher said, with only 12 juggers remaining in existence from the many dairies that bottled their own milk back in 1980. While new juggers are emerging, dairies that bottle their own milk are no longer the norm, but are novelties today.

Way-Har Farms is proud to continue their tradition of jugging, despite the challenges faced. By changing with the times and adapting new strategies to remain profitable, Way-Har Farms continues to bring milk from their herd directly to consumers.  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.


PHOTO 1: Overview of the dairy farm, which sits just down the road from the farm market.

PHOTO 2: The market offers more than milk, with a deli counter, bakery, ice cream parlor and sales of other unique goods.

PHOTO 3: The stars of the show.

PHOTO 4: Way-Har Farms raises all of their own replacement heifers.

PHOTO 5: Milk sales have plummeted since the jugging heyday in the 1970s. War-Har Farms is one of only 12 juggers remaining since those days. Others have begun jugging since then, and the interest in on-farm dairy processing is growing.

PHOTO 6: This trailer is used to sell Way-Har Farms ice cream at events. Photos courtesy of Way-Har Farms.

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